The '80s Decade ~ Scrapbook III
Chinese female drummer is half the Hillman team
By Kevin Prokosh
Winnipeg Free Press
Friday, May 17, 1985

Photo by Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press
Bill and Sue-On Hillman, husband-and-wife country music team have home base in Strathclair, Manitoba.

STRATHCLAIR - At first glance, denim-clad Bill Hillman looks like any rural Manitoba cowboy. It's only on closer scrutiny that the decidedly Oriental flavor of his appearance becomes apparent.

Around the guitarist's neck hangs a 24-carat gold medallion with his first name spelled out in Chinese and English. His jean shirt is embroidered with almond blossoms and his large belt buckle gleams with a Far East motif.

"Sometimes I think he is more Chinese than I am," says his vivacious wife Sue-On. "He's adapted very well to my culture."

These are the Hillmans, a husband-and-wife country music team known throughout rural Manitoba. The long-time residents of Strathclair, a hamlet about 300 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, are former Manitoba Entertainers of the Year.

In July the Hillmans, with sideman Kerry Morris, will be featured at the Call of the Wild Mountain Music Festival at Boggy Creek.

A Novelty

"It's more like country and eastern," laughs the 40ish school teacher as he ponders how to describe their musical concoction.

After almost 20 years of entertaining, Sue-On remains something of a novelty.

"Hillbilly Chinese drummers are hard to come by," laughs husband Bill. "We've never downplayed the Oriental side. Rather than hide a difference we capitalize on it."

Even their impressive brick home, built by his grandfather in 1920, exemplifies the meeting of East and West. Old oak paneling  and bamboo furniture combine in tasteful harmony. In the basement, Bill's assortment of shiny, metal guitars is offset by simple, traditional Chinese musical instruments lining one wall.

The house is the centre of their modest recording empire. Their eight-track studio is the heart of their own label, Maple Grove Records. The Hillman discography lists 10 albums, including three recorded in England.

A Sideline

Thought the Hillmans perform virtually every weekend of the year and tour extensively during the summer, their music is a sideline.

Bill, a graduate of Brandon University, is a high school teacher, first and foremost. So was Sue-On, now in her mid-30s, until she gave birth to the first of their two boys.

"Basically it (music) is my hobby," says Bill. "We play with it. We dive in and out. It's part of our social life."

Like music, all his hobbies get out of hand. His collection of old radio shows involves 10,000 to 15,000 tapes and discs. He has 1,000 classic movies on tape and thousands of vintage TV shows. Bookshelves are stuffed with science fiction, comic books, and numerous first editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan.

"Anything I do, I attack with a vengeance," he says. "Everything I've come in touch with I want to hold on to for future reference."

It was as a youth that he became enamoured with Elvis Presley and later the guitar. He taught himself to play by listening to Presley and Johnny Cash records.

"My first love is old rock 'n' roll. So much of what was rock 'n' roll is now country. I guess I'm country because of the way things have shifted.

"I've always had an appreciation for all music. I can't understand these people who hate this or that. I don't like to see camps set up. I can't think of any music I don't like," Hillman says.

During the early '60s, he played in The Blue Angels, Del Keith and the Dovermen and the Shadows. In 1962 he also joined the Country Gentlemen, a C & W band that appeared on Brandon TV. During that period Hillman met his future bride in nearby Newdale.

Sue-On was born in China but was smuggled into Hong Kong as a baby. She and Bill were married in 1966.

When her husband went on tour, "I didn't want to be left on the sidelines," she recalls. And slowly she eased her way into becoming a Country Gentleman. When the group needed a keyboardist, Sue-On drew on her classical training to fill the gap.

"It was kind of weird. When she joined, she was like a guest," Bill says. "Then, when she became a vital member, we changed the name of the band to Western Union."

Later, when the group's drummer left, she picked up the sticks, after Bill taught her how to keep a backbeat.

"It was frustrating," says Sue-On. "You have to get your hand and feet going at the same time. It was hard work. I don't know if the feminists will like me saying this but drumming is hard work for a girl."

But on the grandstand circuit in Western Canada and the U.S., a female Oriental drummer playing C & W was a drawing card. "I felt like a curiosity. You didn't see many Chinese on stage but I was always one for jumping around. I had a ball. I like having an audience."

Fiery Moments

November 1980: Burned out drums from stage fire at BrunkildA couple of years ago Sue-On helped spark some life in a very subdued audience at Brunkild. For the last set, she took a turn on the drums and within seconds, the place was on fire -- the heat of a spotlight set the bass drum aflame and the crowd, most of whom had been to a funeral earlier in the day, came alive.

"People thought it was part of the act," recalls Sue-On. When folks started throwing beer and water on them, the band feared they might be electrocuted.

"The whole thing seemed to shock the sadness out of the audience," says Sue-On. "After we got the fire out, we started playing Smoke On The Water."

In and around the Brandon area, the Hillmans have a high profile. They've appeared on TV since the '60s, and perform in anything from the concert hall to a wilderness shack, from conventions to weddings. And they've linked up with companies such as Federal Grain which set up tours.

"We've always tried to go through the back door rather than in by the front door," Bill says. "We've always tried a different approach. We knew we wouldn't get ahead with a career of one-nighters."

Many marriages involving husband-wife entertainers have been strained by artistic differences and the ravages of the road. The Hillmans' secret is that they keep their disagreements in the studio.

"We don't carry any of the problems out of the basement," says Bill. "Maybe to the kitchen but not any farther."

The two take part in every facet of the recording business, from the production, the photography and graphics on every album cover, to the distribution and promotion. Basically they sell their LPs from the stage during breaks in their shows.

"I can't say that any of the albums have made money," Bill says. "The profits go back into the operation."

But in a highly competitive profession, it can be frustrating to rein in the dream of stardom. "I've been chasing it (the dream). I've walked the streets of Nashville. Maybe we don't have 100 per cent commitment but we've sent the records out.

One of Bill's dreams is to go to the West Indies and do a country reggae album.

But he can look back with satisfaction on his career. Besides 30 scrapbooks of past glories, there are his two songs, One Night Stand and Bring Back the Good Times, which hit the Top 10 in Western Canada. There have been the national television appearances, the performance for Princess Anne in Brandon, and the three summer tours of England. Not bad for a pair of school teachers who moonlight as entertainers.

"I feel successful," Bill says. "Only about one per cent of all bands succeed. We've succeeded more than most.

The Story of Sue-On's Hot Ludwig Drums as 
Featured in the Hillman FaceBook Photo Gallery
On the Road with Bill and Sue-On Hillman
Mirrored at the Manitoba Music Museum Site.
Sue-On's Charred Vintage Ludwigs ~ Brunkild Stage ~ 1980s

We had the misfortune of playing for a social in Brunkild on the same day that a local family had been killed in a tragic traffic accident. . . a very sombre, sad and unresponsive crowd. So we pulled an old R&R trick and set fire to Sue-On's drums (actually a stage light had gotten too close to the side of the bass drum and set fire to the plastic laminate). 

As flames engulfed the drums the audience tried to help avert a disaster by throwing beer and water on us. Finally a powder fire extinguisher was brought in to blanket the drums, and the already wet band, in white. While we slipped around in the swampy goo on stage to assess the damage the crowd suddenly went wild and broke out of their grief by leaping on the tables and shouting hysterically for more. 

We defied electrocution and fired up the amps . . . and naturally our first song had to be "Smoke On The Water" : ) . . . The rest of the night was a hoot. We later salvaged the Ludwigs by scraping off the char and covering them with buckskin. They sound even better now. True Story.

Official Voice of the Canadian
Country Music Industry
Ottawa, Ontario
February 1981
Manitoba's Bill and Sue-On Hillman are a virtual record making factory. Not only do they produce and record their music, (they have nine albums to their credit on their Maple Grove label), but they promote, distribute and sell their own product, even to the extent of having a catalog to advertise their records world-wide.

Bill, who was born in Strathclair, Manitoba, and Sue-On who was born in China but raised in Newdale, Manitoba, became a singing team shortly after they were married some 15 years ago. Holding university degrees in Arts, Science and Education, both taught school in Strathclair until Sue-On relinquished that duty two years ago, when a son was born to the likeable duo. The teaching responsibilities made it necessary to schedule their performing activities to week-end dates and summertime tours.

After the usual number of "dues paying" years performing in Western Canada Grandstand Exhibition shows, U.S. State Fairs, and as a featured act on the Federal Grain Train Show (a touring company for rodeos and fairs), Bill and Sue-On received some welcome recognition by copping Manitoba's 1979 Entertainer of the Year Award, which came about on the strength of their top ten hit, "One Night Stand," a song written by Bill.

Sue-On who plays drums and shares the singing with guitar playing Bill, add the keyboard magic of Kevin Pahl to make up The Hillman Express, and their tours of England have resulted in two of their recent albums (Vols. 7 and 9) being recorded in British studios. Some tracks on their volume 8 album "16 Cajun-Fiddle-Country Songs" were actually laid down in a punk rock studio in London's Soho District. 

Their musical abilities seem unlimited, being able to perform contemporary country, rock, pop, gospel and cajun. Bill and Sue-On Hillman unquestionably a Canadian country act with a bright future.

January-February, 1981
Bill & Sue-On Hillman's ninth album "Bill & Sue-On Hillman With Desperado" released on Maple Grove Records was recorded in Durham, England. The album features the songs perfomred on stage during their overseas tour. Also they have published and recorded "Bring Back the Good Times" b/w "Disco Stomp (Bye Bye Ja Ja)", the latter written by Bill. The songs, says Bill, are receiving airplay in Canada, England and Germany.

Badge from the Hillman performance at the 
Big Country Awards

"Yahoo-Lassoo" Social
Kick-off to Centennial
Music: Bill & Sue-On Hillman
Keystone Centre Convention Centre
Saturday, January 2, 1982 ~ 9:00 P.M. - 1:00 A.M.

Treherne Fireman's Ball
Saturday, February 13th, 1982
Dance to the Music of the Hillman Express
(Don Percey Guest Speaker)

From the 1980s
Hillman Stationery ~ Track Sheet ~ Metallic Stickers



Bill and Sue-On Hillman are certainly no newcomers to the Canadian music scene. They have spent many exciting summers as a feature act with Bardine Productions of Portland, Oregon, headlining grandstand shows at Canadian exhibitions and Western U.S.A.  state and county fairs. For six years previous to this they performed as back-up band and feature act on the Federal Grain Train show, performing at every major fair and rodeo throughout Western Canada. In recent years they have taken their brand of prairie music overseas on three very successful tours of Britain.

Sue-On is a rarity -- an Oriental girl drummer-keyboardist with dynamite stage presence, knockout good looks and a unique sensuous voice equally adept with tender love ballads, or driving show stoppers. Sue-On was born in southern China but fled with her family to Hong Kong during the Communist Revolution. Later, she moved to the small prairie town of Newdale, Manitoba. Here she became involved in choir work and completed seven years of classical training on piano. It was also here that she met future husband Bill Hillman of nearby Strathclair who encouraged her to take up guitar and drums and to start singing professionally. This diverse background has produced a style and talent which is unique to this Oriental beauty.

Bill, a master at unusual guitar effects, writes, arranges and produces the duo's recordings. He has turned out nine Bill and Sue-On Hillman albums as well as being actively involved in session work and production assignments with other Western CAnada and English recording groups. Born and raised on a farm near Strathclair, Manitoba, he became involved with band and TV work while attending university. During this period he appeared on daily and weekly TV shows for five years and appeared and toured with various international rock and country acts. He has written a wide variety of material including ballads, rock, C & W, MOR, folk and gospel songs, but his love for the Prairies shows in all his work. Perhaps the best example of this is his autobiographical PRAIRIE SAGA which comprises half of Hillman Album No. 6. Bill is very active in all areas of show business and has one of Canada's largest tape and record collections of "Old Radio Nostalgia" from the '30s, '40s and '50s (well over 7,000 shows).

The third member of the Hillman Express is drummer-bassist Kerry Morris, also of Strathclair. Kerry, an electronics wiz, lends invaluable expertise in the areas of recording and sound contributions. Kerry, an experienced pilot and crop duster, is responsible for flying the group to more distant engagements.

Bill and Sue-On, who hold university degrees in Arts, Science and Education, both teach high school music, drama and geography during the winter months. Between teaching duties they have performed at just about every major function and showplace in Western Canada. They are equally at ease in a concert situation, a teen or old-time dance, convention, political rally, armed forces base, rodeo, or a TV or recording studio. Their variety of interests, their unique background and their love for all types of music have resulted in an exciting style which has combined elements of country, rock, folk, pop and Oriental music. Their special brand of music is performed with an excitement which has never failed to capture the undivided attention of their audiences.
CANADA REPRESENTATION: Maple Grove Productions, Box 280, Strathclair, MB, Canada ~ 1.204.365.2576
U.S.A. REPRESENTATION: Bardine Productions, Drawer T., Amboy, Washington, 98601, USA
ENGLISH REPRESENTATION for DESPERADO and the HILLMANS: Borrow-Hunter Enterprises, 33 Borough Road, Middlesbrough, County Cleveland, England.

* Featured on nine Maple Grove record albums as well as various hit singles and other recording projects.
* Entertainers of the Year Award - presented at the Manitoba Annual Country Music Awards - 1979
* Big Country Award Dinner appearance - 1980
* Opry North appearances on network radio and TV.
* Featured on Canada's first video album.
* Regular TV and radio specials, local and network, over the last decade.
* Numerous song writer awards including an American Song Festival Honourable Mention.
* M.A.C.A. nominations for Entertainers of the Year and Top Female Vocalist of the Year.
* Feature act on the annual Boggy Creek - Call of the Wild Country Music Festival.
* TV and radio commercials - jingles work - movie sound tracks.
* 1979 tour of England with top English show group Desperation.
* 1979 recording session at Guardian Studios, Durham, England - Album No. 9 produced.
* 1977 - Tour of England - workingman's clubs - social clubs - discos - beach resorts.
* Recording session at Impulse Studios, Newcastle, England - Album No. 7 produced.
* 1976 - Tour of England - 30 one-nighters - feature act: "The Hillmans From Canada.
* 1976 - Recording session at Gooseberry Studios, London, England - Album No 6 produced.
* 1975 - Fly-in tour of remote northern Manitoba centres.
* 1974 - Tour of Northwestern USA state and county fairs - Headliners on grandstand shows.
* 1967-1973 - Summer tours of Western Canada exhibitions and rodeos -- grandstand and stage shows as Federal Grain Train - Treflan Exhibitions - Western Union
* 1967 - Film footage featured at Canadian Expo Labyrinth Pavilion
* Daily and weekly series of local TV shows, 1965-1971.
* Regular appearances on German Army troop shows and socials.
* A multitude of trade shows - conventions - political rallies - university concerts - Department of Education projects - ACME and MACE concerts.




Ma Henning Tribute

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